Silence is the new communication

Written by: Nghi Dang
Before I moved to Finland, I had already kept telling myself to be braver in speaking up or standing in front of the crowd. I had this small fear ever since I was a kid. I could recall being pushed by my mom to “go ahead, nobody is going to bite you”. No one ever actually bites me (that is a relief) but they have the look, which still stirs my fears now and then. I was going through all posts published on diversophy® Facebook page, and I came across this article Learning to Speak Up When You’re from a Culture of Deference.
Many of us are uncomfortable speaking with people of higher status. We can feel self-conscious, unsure of what to say, and afraid what we’re going to say — or what we’re saying — is the wrong thing. After these conversations, we often replay in our heads what we said, analyze what we shouldn’t have said, or realize what we should have said but didn’t.
My attention was caught immediately when I saw the headline. It triggered a switch in my brain. I have lived abroad for four years now, in more than three countries, meeting and fortunately becoming friends with many more direct people from cultures quite opposite to my own culture (based on Hofstede’s model for the sake of a generalized illustration). I worked with and studied with cultures “where they are much more lax and you are actually expected to voice your opinions, be assertive, and even establish relationships with these taboo figures”. The key point here is: in spite of me having spoken up more than I have ever been, I am still under the influence of “liability of deference”.
The fact that people from deferential and polite cultures often struggle quite significantly trying to make their way in less hierarchical cultures.
Frequently I am told that, or asked why Asian students or teammates seem to be mostly quiet. Even when my case is sometimes accepted as an exception, I still see myself quieter than others. It could be the respect for authority and hierarchy as described in the article; however, personally, I sense it relating more to either the fear of “losing face” in public, or due to the fact that I value listening and thinking clearly before speaking up. My years living in Finland also taught me another level of silence, privacy and listening as it exists in Finnish culture. My friends sometimes joke, “ You were born to go abroad to Finland”. Maybe they are right.
Sensitizing managers to these differences is critical for them to be able to make accurate attributions for their employees’ behavior. For example, if an employee doesn’t speak up in a meeting, it may not be because the employee doesn’t have anything to say. Or if an employee offers to take on a new assignment, but without the unbridled, “go-getter” type of enthusiasm the manager is used to from his American employees, this may just be a difference in communication style instead of a difference in motivation to do the work.
The issue may seem small, but it remains a good example of the contrasting behaviors between cultures and how not being aware of the difference of deference might affect the final result.
Have you had experiences working with people from culture of deference? diversophy® would love to hear your stories as well as your suggested solutions or recommendations to others facing same issues.

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